Living as a single person presents considerable challenge to the average Christian when it comes to sex. Traditionally, Christian ethics have understood sex as something to be engaged in only by married persons. However, across the centuries, and especially in our day and age, the Church and its teachers have recognized the challenge this ethic presents and the reality that many believers struggle with it and that others essentially ignore it. It should be stated right away that sins related to sexuality are not necessarily worse than other forms of sin (e.g., cheating, stealing, raging anger, etc.). Of course, while Biblically this is true, in our societies and our churches this is often not the case. Sexual sins are made out to be the worst possible of all offenses, especially those committed by Christians. Such a belief is short-sighted and fails to take into consideration the all encompassing effects of the Fall and how many things in our lives can separate us from God, from other people, and from ourselves as God intended us to be.
The prevailing sexual ethic in Western society could be summarized as follows, “as long as the two or more parties are adults, and all involved consent, everything is permitted.” This ethic is preached, painted, and demonstrated everywhere. It is part of the air of modern western society. Even the believing Christian who wants to follow Christ in this area cannot help but be influenced by this ethic because he or she lives in a world saturated by it. It appears in advertizing, in film and television, in the lives of celebrities and other notable figures, on the internet, and in the lyrics and music videos of popular music. Most powerfully, the “normalness” of this ethic and its acceptability is seen by the average Christian in the lives of his or her friends, co-workers, and family members.
It is a small wonder than that there are any Christians who continue to practice chastity. Which for single Christians means abstaining from sexual relations, and for married and single Christians means developing a pure mind and a right attitude toward members of the opposite sex and sexual activity in general (we will talk more about chastity next week). Thanks be to God there are many who do and many who are striving, despite their struggles, to live a chaste life. The single Christian who struggles with sex needs to know there is plenty of forgiveness and mercy from God. God is not interested in punishing us or making us feel bad. The guilt that is associated with sexual sin is an appropriate recognition of failing to do the right thing. However, God does not want us to stay trapped in guilt, shame, or despair over what we have done. He invites us to confess our sins, to amend our lives, and to receive His forgiveness.
There are many Christians, including some pastors and theologians, who want to claim that sex outside of Christian marriage is permissible. I believe this is a difficult claim to sustain on the basis of Scripture and the Church’s clear teaching over the centuries. This claim is usually stated along these lines, “Sex is special. It is a gift given to us by God. You shouldn’t have sex casually, but only with someone you love.” This is a better ethic than the popular ethic that anything goes between consenting adults. This approach to sexual ethics limits sexual activity to two persons who are in love. Of course the difficultly here is in defining love. Does that mean romantic love, emotional love, committed love, or the intention to get married some day? Furthermore, this ethic totally ignores the clear teaching of the Bible, which defines sex outside of a marriage as a sin (Acts 15:20, 1 Cor 5:1, 1 Cor 6:9, 1 Cor 7:2, Galatians 5:19-20, Ephesians 5:3, Hebrews 13:4). Those who wish to claim that it is acceptable for Christians to have sex outside of marriage need to deal with these passages as well as 2000 years of Christian teaching on the subject.Another popular argument for the acceptability of sex before marriage that sometimes slips into Christian circles is the issue of sexual chemistry. This argument reflects the enlarged and grossly overstated importance of sex that is promoted by popular culture. It also reflects a selfish perspective where relationships are more about my own happiness rather than bringing happiness to another person. Can issues of sexual chemistry be painful for married couples, of course they can. This is a difficult issue for some and I do not wish to make light of it. However, with God’s grace, and when necessary, with help from counselors, the vast majority of married couples can sort out these issues. Again this argument does not take into consideration the Christian view of sex as a sacred act, a sacred gift given to us by God and then shared as a gift between two people who have pledged everything to each other in the vows of marriage.
Sex can certainly be a great joy, a beautiful expression of love, and an exciting encounter with the goodness of creation as created by God. However, millions of people have lived full and fulfilling lives without sex. Sex is grossly over-rated by our society. The single Christian is not missing out on the biggest secret that the world has to offer if he or she abstains from sex. However, sex is an intimate expression of who we are, a very sharing of our body, mind, and spirit with another person. It should not be treated casually, or like candy (which is essentially how popular society understands it), but as a sacred gift given to us by God and intended to be a living metaphor of Christ’s relationship with the Church. As such it is best enjoyed and expressed within the covenant of marriage, where a man and woman pledge themselves to one another in the name of the Triune God.